Wreck of historic royal ship discovered off the English coast

Published by  News archive

On 10th Jun 2022

An oil painting of the Gloucester as it sank.
The Wreck of the Gloucester off Yarmouth, 6th May 1682, by Johan Danckerts.

The wreck of one of the most famous ships of the 17th century - which sank 340 years ago while carrying the future King James II and VII - has been discovered off the coast of Norfolk in the UK, it can be revealed today.

Since running aground on a sandbank on May 6, 1682, the wreck of the warship the Gloucester has lain half-buried on the seabed, its exact whereabouts unknown until brothers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell, with their friend James Little, found it after a four-year search.

Due to the age and prestige of the ship, the condition of the wreck, the finds already rescued, and the accident’s political context, the discovery is described by maritime history expert Prof Claire Jowitt, of the University of East Anglia (UEA), as the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose.


The Gloucester represents an important ‘almost’ moment in British political history: a royal shipwreck causing the very near-death of the Catholic heir to the Protestant throne - James Stuart, Duke of York and Albany - at a time of great political and religious tension.

Now a major exhibition is planned for Spring 2023, the result of a partnership between the Barnwell brothers, Norfolk Museums Service, and academic partner UEA. Running from February to July at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, the exhibition will display finds from the wreck - including the bell that confirmed the ship’s identity - and share ongoing historical, scientific and archaeological research.

Prof Jowitt, a world-leading authority on maritime cultural history, is a co-curator of the exhibition. “Because of the circumstances of its sinking, this can be claimed as the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982,” she said. “The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history.

“It is an outstanding example of underwater cultural heritage of national and international importance. A tragedy of considerable proportions in terms of loss of life, both privileged and ordinary, the full story of the Gloucester's last voyage and the impact of its aftermath needs re-telling, including its cultural and political importance, and legacy. We will also try to establish who else died and tell their stories, as the identities of a fraction of the victims are currently known.”

The Barnwell brothers are Norfolk-based printers, licensed divers and Honorary Fellows in the School of History at UEA. Lincoln said he was partly inspired to search for the wreck after watching the lifting of the Mary Rose on television as a child.

“It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester,” he said. “We were starting to believe that we were not going to find her, we’d dived so much and just found sand. On my descent to the seabed the first thing I spotted were large cannon laying on white sand, it was awe- inspiring and really beautiful.

Uncovering the stories behind Norfolk's Mary Rose


Julian & Lincoln Barnwell, Prof Jowitt, and Dr Redding. © UEA

“It instantly felt like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting. We were the only people in the world at that moment in time who knew where the wreck lay. That was special and I’ll never forget it. Our next job was to identify the site as the Gloucester.”

Julian added: “When we decided to search for the Gloucester we had no idea how significant she was in history. We had read that the Duke of York was onboard but that was it. We were confident it was the Gloucester, but there are other wreck sites out there with cannons, so it still needed to be confirmed.

“There is still a huge amount of knowledge to be gained from the wreck, which will benefit Norfolk and the nation. We hope this discovery and the stories that are uncovered will inform and inspire future generations.”

Lord Dannatt, Norfolk Deputy Lieutenant and longstanding resident of the county, is lending his skills and support to the historic rescue project. As former head of the British Army, he works with charities and organisations that have links to the armed services.

“This is going to be Norfolk’s Mary Rose,” said Lord Dannatt. “Julian and Lincoln have touched history, history that could have changed the course of this nation. It’s such an amazing story to tell. Our aim is to bring that story to life and to share it with as many people as possible.”

Julian and Lincoln Barnwell measure one of the Gloucester's cannons. © Norfolk Historic Shipwrecks

The Gloucester was commissioned in 1652, built at Limehouse in London, and launched in 1654. In 1682 it was selected to carry James Stuart - who later became King of England and King of Ireland as James II, and King of Scotland as James VII - to Edinburgh to collect his heavily pregnant wife and their households. The aim was to bring them back to King Charles II’s court in London in time, it was hoped, for the birth of a legitimate male heir.

The ship had set sail from Portsmouth with the Duke and his entourage joining it off Margate, having travelled by yacht from London. At 5.30am on May 6, the Gloucester ran aground some 45km off Great Yarmouth following a dispute about navigating the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks. The Duke, a former Lord High Admiral, had argued with the pilot for control over the ship's course.

Within an hour the vessel sank with the loss of hundreds of the crew and passengers. The Duke barely survived, having delayed abandoning ship until the last minute.

As well as the Duke of York, the Gloucester carried a number of prominent English and Scottish courtiers including John Churchill, later the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

Diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys, who witnessed events from another ship in the fleet, wrote his own account - describing the harrowing experience for victims and survivors, with some picked up “half dead” from the water.

Together with their late father Michael, and two friends including James Little, a former Royal Navy submariner and diver, the Barnwell brothers found the wreck site in 2007, with the Gloucester split down the keel and remains of the hull submerged in sand.

The ship's bell, manufactured in 1681, was later recovered, and in 2012 it was used by the Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defence to decisively identify the vessel.

Due to the time taken to confirm the identity of the ship and the need to protect an ‘at risk’ site, which lies in international waters, it is only now that its discovery can be made public. As well as the Receiver of Wreck and Ministry of Defence, the wreck has been declared to Historic England.

Following the discovery, the brothers completed an underwater archaeology course with the Nautical Archaeology Society.

Artefacts rescued and conserved include clothes and shoes, navigational and other professional naval equipment, personal possessions, and many wine bottles.

Julian and Lincoln Barnwell examine some of their discoveries. © UEA


One of the wine bottles bears a glass seal with iconography that connects it to a passenger onboard, Colonel George Legge, Master of Ordnance and Groom of the Bedchamber to the Duke of York.

Legge was the son of Elizabeth Washington, and the Washington crest on the wine bottle, with its distinctive 'stars and stripes', links it and the ship to the most famous member of the family, George Washington, the first US President. The design is found on the Purple Heart, a US decoration awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed while serving with the military. 

Uniquely, in addition there were also some unopened bottles, with wine still inside - offering exciting opportunities for future research.

The accompanying historical research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Prof Jowitt, will explore not only the failures of command at sea before the Gloucester sank, but conspiracy theories about the tragedy's causes and its political consequences.

It is also hoped that UEA’s scientific expertise and facilities will be used to analyse some of the finds from the wreck.

The Ministry of Defence’s position is that all artefacts remain the property of the Ministry of Defence; however, where items are positively identified as personal property, ownership will then default to the Crown.

Alongside UEA, Norfolk Museums Service and the Barnwell brothers, foundational partners in the project are the Alan Boswell Group and York Archaeology. The research project and exhibition are also being generously supported by Birketts LLP, the Leverhulme Trust and the Maritime Archaeology Trust. The National Museum of the Royal Navy is supporting Norfolk Museums Service with the exhibition, including loans of key items from the national collection.

A new paper titled ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck’ by Prof Claire Jowitt offers a comprehensive academic analysis of the disaster and its political implications and legacies. It is published in the journal English Historical Review on Friday, June 10.

To keep up with the project's progress, you can visit the Gloucester Project page.


How important is this discovery? 

Due to the age and condition of the wreck, the finds already rescued, the political context, and the royal connection, historians believe it to be the most important maritime discovery since the Mary Rose. The shipwreck represents an important ‘almost’ moment in British political history: a royal shipwreck causing the very near-death of the Catholic heir to the Protestant throne at a time of great political and religious tension. 

What is UEA’s involvement?  

As an internationally recognised centre for historical and scientific research, the University of East Anglia is thrilled to be the academic partner in the Gloucester shipwreck project - providing deep expertise on the doorstep of this incredible discovery.  

The University plays an important economic, social and cultural role within the regional community and this historic discovery is one of many diverse and exciting initiatives we are proud to work on with our civic partners. 

With world-leading experts in maritime history and culture, UEA’s role is to uncover fresh insights about the controversial disaster and reveal more about the lives – both privileged and ordinary - of those on board. 

While the Gloucester shipwreck was clearly an important ‘almost’ moment in British political and religious history, this cannot only be a tale of ‘great men’ and high politics. Many less fortunate people, from diverse cultural backgrounds, lost their lives and UEA historians will ensure their stories are told. 

It is also hoped that the University’s scientific expertise and facilities will be used to analyse some of the finds from the wreck.  

In Spring 2023 a major exhibition, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck’, will be jointly curated by UEA and Norfolk Museums Service and staged for five months at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. 

When was the wreck first discovered? 

Julian and Lincoln Barnwell discovered the wreck in June 2007 after a four-year search covering 5000 nautical miles. In 2012 one of the rescued finds – the ship’s bell – was used to conclusively confirm the wreck was the Gloucester. 

Where and when did the ship run aground? 

The ship ran aground on the Leman and Ower sandbank, 45km off Great Yarmouth at 5.30am on May 6th 1682 and sank within an hour. 

Where exactly was the wreck found by the Barnwells? 

The exact location of the wreck is protected and cannot be made public.  

Why did it take so long to identify the wreck? 

It was hard to find and identify as there are a number of 17th and 18th century wrecks off the Norfolk and Suffolk coastline, and the sandbanks off Yarmouth and Lowestoft are particularly dynamic so marine charts quickly become outdated. 

Why has the discovery not been announced until now? 

Due to the time taken to confirm the identity of the ship and the need to protect the security of an ‘at risk’ site while finalising appropriate governance, it is only now that its discovery can be made public. The wreck has been declared to the Receiver of Wreck, Historic England, and Ministry of Defence.

What finds have there been? 

Finds include the ship’s bell (which decisively identified it as the Gloucester), clothes and shoes, navigational and other professional naval equipment, personal possessions, and even some unopened wine bottles. 

Are there still finds on the wreck that have yet to be rescued?

Yes, although the extent of what has still to be rescued is yet to be determined.

Have any human remains been found? 

No. Only animal bones have been found so far.  

What state is the wreck in and can it be brought ashore eventually? 

The ship is split down the keel, with remains of the hull submerged in sand. It is still to be determined how much of the hull is under the sand and what is intact. There are currently no plans to raise any part of the remains.

When and where will the finds be available for the public to view? 

A landmark exhibition, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk’s Royal Shipwreck’ about the finding of the Gloucester will be held at Norwich Castle Museum from Feb 25-July 25 2023 – jointly curated by Norfolk Museums Service and UEA.  This will display all the most important finds to date which have been conserved.

What is the long term plan for the artefacts?

A number of options for the future display of the finds are currently being considered.

What is Lord Dannatt’s involvement in the project? 

As former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt works with charities and organisations that have links to the armed services. As one of Norfolk’s Deputy Lieutenants, and also a long-standing resident of the county, he is keen to lend his support and skills to this major historic rescue project which has enormous relevance to Norfolk.  

Where was the ship travelling and why? Who was on board? 

The Gloucester had set sail from Portsmouth and was travelling to Edinburgh. James Stuart (1633-1701), Duke of York, and later King James II, joined the ship off Margate, having travelled by yacht from London. He was going to conduct royal business at the Scottish Parliament before bringing his family back to London. Also on board were courtiers and prominent members of the English and Scottish aristocracy including the Earl of Roxburgh, John Churchill (the future 1st Duke of Marlborough), and Colonel George Legge, plus many ordinary crew members. The diarist Samuel Pepys was travelling alongside the Gloucester in the Royal Yacht Katherine as part of the royal fleet and wrote about the tragedy. 

What did Pepys write about it? Is his account available somewhere?  

Samuel Pepys wrote about his experiences in a letter to his friend and business partner William Hewer immediately on arriving in Edinburgh on 8th May, expecting the incident to “become the talk of the town”. Pepys describes how harrowing the experience was for survivors and victims, with some picked up “half dead” from the water. He also pointedly commented on how much more serious the disaster might have been: “Had this fallen out but two hours sooner in the morning, or the yachts at the usual distance they had all the time before been, the Duke himself and every soul had perished.” 

How was James rescued? 

Shortly before the ship sank, the Duke escaped into one of the Gloucester’s small boats with his close friend the courtier John Churchill (later 1st Duke of Marlborough). The boat had been hoisted into the sea and the Duke finally consented to be taken to the safety of one of the accompanying yachts, the Mary, which was part of the fleet. He then hurried to Edinburgh, arriving on 7th May about 8pm. 

How many people died? 

Between 130 and 250 people (of approximately the 330 passengers and crew in total onboard – no muster list survives) are estimated to have died. They included the Earl of Roxburghe, Lord Ibrackan, Sir John Hope and the Duke’s brother-in-law James Hyde, 2nd lieutenant on the Gloucester. 

What were the political and religious tensions about at the time and how were they relevant to the disaster?  

James’ Catholicism became widely known after the introduction of the Test Act in February 1673, where those refusing to take an oath denouncing the Catholic belief in transubstantiation were debarred from holding public office. In June, James was forced to resign his position as Lord High Admiral, and his marriage in September 1673 to the Catholic Princess Mary of Modena indicated to his Protestant countrymen his enduring commitment to the Roman faith. Protestants suspected that Mary was determined to affect the conversion of England, making her and her husband unpopular. 

James’ Catholicism provoked a major constitutional crisis between 1678-81 when a group of English Protestants called the Country Party, later termed the Whigs, attempted to exclude James from inheriting the throne, fearing that a Catholic king would be the puppet of the French Catholic king, Louis XIV. There were a number of conspiracies, where it was widely believed that there were plots to murder Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother. Most prominently the so-called Popish Plot (1678) provoked mass hysteria. As a result, James was increasingly vilified and, fearing the overthrow of his own rule, Charles II ordered James and his family to reside first in the Hague and then Scotland, where he mainly remained from 1679-82. 

What questions were raised about James’ behaviour, and why did it matter? 

James had quarrelled with the pilot James Ayres the previous night about the course to follow to avoid the treacherous Norfolk sandbanks. James clearly influenced the choice of route but accepted no responsibility when disaster struck and solely blamed the pilot, wishing him to be hanged immediately (though he was in fact court martialled and imprisoned). James also delayed abandoning the sinking ship until the very last minute – which needlessly cost the lives of many who, because of protocol, could not abandon the ship before royalty.   

The reputational damage he suffered as a result of the shipwreck mattered, however, because some of the powerful eyewitnesses to his behaviour clearly started to feel he was unfit to be king and later played a role in ousting him from the throne in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. He was replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange – both Protestants – after he had ruled for less than four years. His detractors also claimed that he saved his dogs and Catholic priests at the expense of the lives of his courtiers and the ship's crew. 

How could British history have been different if James had died? 

If James had drowned in 1682, British history would probably have looked very different indeed since Charles II’s illegitimate son - James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth - may very well have inherited the throne on his father’s death in 1685. The 1688 revolution, which created a new type of state and contributed greatly to the modern world, would not have happened. 

Or perhaps in 1685 another civil war might have ensued between those who supported the claim of King Charles’s illegitimate Protestant son, Monmouth, against the claims of the Duke of York’s legitimate Protestant daughter Mary and her foreign husband William of Orange (a difficult choice for patriotic Protestant Englishmen since William controlled his wife politically). 

What do we know about the ship itself? 

The Gloucester was built at a private dockyard in Limehouse under the supervision of the shipwright Mathew Graves and launched in the spring of 1654, with a complement of 54 guns and 280 crew. The Gloucester was originally a Cromwellian third-rate warship. After 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne, the Commonwealth Navy was renamed The Royal Navy. At the Restoration, the royal family renamed many of the fleet’s ships, but the name the Gloucester, which referenced the Commonwealth’s triumph at the Siege of Gloucester in 1643, remained the same - probably as a compliment to Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Charles I.

The Gloucester fought in numerous battles during a bellicose and turbulent period in British history, involved in maritime campaigns during the Anglo-Spanish War, and the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars, such as the Battle of Lowestoft and Battle of Sole Bay. UEA historians will create the first cultural biography of the only surviving third-rate Cromwellian warship and a vessel whose tragic fate almost fundamentally changed British history.  

How can I/we support this project?

With very significant costs for conservation of artefacts, future historical research, mounting the exhibition - and it is hoped one day that a permanent exhibition might be created in Norfolk - a new charity is to be formed to provide project support, fundraising and governance. General The Lord Dannatt will be Chairman of the Trustees supported by Mr Henry Cator (High Steward of Great Yarmouth) as Chairman of the fundraising Development Board. In the meantime, the University will receive and hold donations for the 1682 project under its own charitable status and those wishing to contribute should contact David Ellis at supporter@uea.ac.uk for further information.

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